Review: The Sister by Poppy Adams

The Sister, Poppy Adams’ debut novel, is a dark, eerie story. The novel opens at Bulburrow Court, an old manor and family home, with 70ish Ginny waiting for the arrival of her younger sister Vivi, whom she has not seen for nearly 50 years. Why have they been separated? Why has Vivi come back? Is she looking for something? Which sister is THE sister of the title? The suspense kept me reading page after page, looking for answers.

We notice almost immediately that Ginny is a bit ‘off’. She’s hyper-focused on time, wearing two wristwatches and constantly checking them against her many other clocks. Her tea must be just so and she can’t drink it if it’s made by someone else. It takes her 55 minutes to make her bed and arrange her sheets meticulously. Her weird ways are doled out liberally throughout the story, giving the impression that all is not right with our narrator. Vivi, on the other hand, seems the more normal of the two, but there are still questions..

Adams weaves details of the past with the present in alternating chapters. But are things as they appear? What really happened at the bell tower and on the cellar steps? Lots of questions are raised, but few are answered, leaving the reader a little frustrated and forced to speculate on what is really going on here.

There is a strange sense of foreboding, mystery and suspense coursing through the entire novel, mixed in with an extensive amount of scientific detail about moths. Moths? Why, yes.. Ginny is a World Famous Lepidopterist. At least, she is world famous in her own mind.

Decades old family secrets begin to unravel and our narrator, so level headed and scientific (again, in her own mind) starts coming unglued. The disturbance in her routine brought on by Vivi’s arrival is so unsettling that she finds herself spying on her, following her around, listening in doorways, and becoming increasingly obsessive in her behaviors. The tension builds continuously and by the last few chapters I was on the edge of my seat wanting to know what was going to happen.

Each chapter has a short descriptive title and there is a table of contents, which I love. The Sister is very well written and I predict we will see more of Poppy Adams in the future. I look forward to that.

Review: The Girls by Lori Lansens

The Girls by Lori Lansens is a fictional autobiography of Rose and Ruby Darlen, who at 29 are the oldest living conjoined twins in history. They share a vital vein in the head and can never be separated.

The story is written by Rose, the more bookish twin, with some chapters contributed by Ruby at Rose’s request. Those chapters are in a different font and easily distinguishable in tone as well as visually. Ruby’s chapters are more down to earth and practical, feeling more like journal entries, quite in contrast to Rose’s more literary prose. Ruby is straightforward and says things Rose isn’t quite ready to say.

The twins are born during a tornado, a remarkable birth during a remarkable event. Their mother is an unwed teen who abandons them shortly after their birth. They are adopted and lovingly raised by their nurse, Aunt Lovey, and her husband, Uncle Stash.

Growing up, they are sheltered by their parents and community and treated like any other children, which to me rang a little false. They are just average girls, and, oh yeah, they’re joined at the head. Ruby is much smaller, with club feet, and Rose literally carries her everywhere, yet there is no mention of backaches, walking problems, neck strain, etc. She walks just fine through the majority of the book. Rose has a relatively normal body but a distorted mouth and face, while Ruby has a normal, even pretty, face with a deformed body.

Their childhood is spent on a farm where Ruby has a special knack for finding Indian artifacts in the soil. She amasses a museum worthy collection. They go to a regular school where Rose is an excellent student, although Ruby is “intellectually lazy”. They have friends and relationships and a loving family. They grow up and have jobs. Everyone is accepting. Everything seems very normal. Rose decides to write her autobiography after she is diagnosed with an inoperable brain aneurysm, which will, of course, kill them both.

The book is well written and the author created memorable characters, and yet.. this book felt so long to me (it’s only 352 pages). I couldn’t read more than a few pages at a time without getting bored and wanting to do something else. I stopped reading it twice to read other things. I’m not sure why. There are sweet moments, like when the girls tug on each other’s earlobes to say goodnight or I love you. The pace wasn’t slow, but I think the novelty of who the girls were kind of wore off halfway through and then it was just a story of two girls having ordinary interactions with ordinary people. It became a bit tedious. I think I would have been more interested in learning something about their unique challenges as conjoined twins, a condition so rare I’ve never actually seen a pair except on television. Something about the frustration of never, ever being truly alone, the utter lack of privacy, the challenges of everyday things like using the bathroom, etc. would have gone a long way in making this a more interesting read. I feel bad saying that because I know a lot of people really love this book, but for me, it was just ok.

Review: The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory

It’s All Fun and Games Until Someone Loses a Head!

Our book club is reading The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory this month. The size concerned me a bit (661 pages) so I started it immediately after our last meeting to be sure I had plenty of time to read it. I needn’t have worried.. it is a very fast, easy read. I devoured it in less than a week. When I wasn’t reading it, I was thinking about the book and the characters, and would try to finish whatever I was doing quickly so I could get back to it.

You might expect a book of this size to have lulls or slow parts. It doesn’t. The editing is tight, and the tension builds throughout. An absorbing page-turner; I could not wait to see what would come next.

There are those who don’t care for historical fiction because the outcome is a forgone conclusion.. the ending a certainty. For me, this was not an issue, as I knew very little about the 16th century English court or the reign of the spoiled tyrant, Henry VIII (aside from the playground song, “I am Henery the 8th I am!”). In this case, ignorance is bliss. I liked not knowing what would happen.

Framed by two executions, this novel reads like a 16th century soap opera, full of scandal, danger, murder, ambition, greed, opulence, sex, incest, and more. The Other Boleyn Girl is told from the perspective of Mary Boleyn, the lesser known sister of Anne Boleyn, one of King Henry VIII’s six wives. Taking sibling rivalry to new heights, it tells the tale of two sisters vying for the attentions of the king, and a fiercely ambitious family who sacrificed their daughters in order to find favor, wealth and power.

Mary comes to court as a young girl. Married to William Carey at age 12, she soon catches the eye of the king. She is then ordered by her family to leave Carey’s bed to become the king’s mistress in the hope that their affair will yield land, riches, and power for the Howard/Boleyns. An obedient daughter, she sets aside her own life and desires and does as she is told. After several years and two illegitimate children, the king’s interest begins to wane. The more ambitious sister, Anne, is thrown into his path, and Mary falls from favor. The madness that is Anne’s exhaustive pursuit of the king takes over. Anne, using Mary and their brother George, will stop at nothing to get what she wants. She creates a situation with Queen Katherine that seals her own fate years later.

The historical detail is flawless and the research extensive. It was fascinating to learn about the way people lived, the inequality of English society (from deep poverty to amazing wealth), the expectations of women (proper language, proper manners, the ability to speak several languages, fine domestic arts), the small daily rituals and the use of household items like lice combs (yes, lice, even among the highest levels of society).

There are so many great passages in this book. When I read for my book club, I highlight quotes that I might want to refer back to during our meetings. I did a lot of highlighting in The Other Boleyn Girl! One of my favorite lines is a simile about the excesses of the court, found on page 54:

“There was a trail of extravagance and dishonesty and waste that followed the king round the country like slime behind a snail.”

Such vivid imagery! I was impressed by Ms. Gregory’s writing, the way she handled the complexities of the characters and the seamless blending of fact and fiction. This is an enthralling novel, one I would highly recommend.

You can check out Philippa Gregory’s website HERE

For information about the upcoming movie, starring Scarlett Johansson as Mary, Natalie Portman as Anne, and Eric Bana as Henry VIII, click HERE

You can see our book club’s other selections HERE